GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Posts Tagged ‘Sweden’

Life After Ph.D.: How to retain capacity in academia

In Anamaria's Posts on 2012/07/04 at 07:58

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, writing from Lund, Sweden.

We have recently learned that many women choose to leave academia after getting their doctoral degree, and women are not the only ones deciding against a career in higher education. Especially in the hard sciences, many researchers prefer to work in their respective industries or in special research institutes. More money, a shorter path between the project stage and the practical implementation, and more effective administration are some of the reasons why this is the case.

Universities are concerned with this flight of research and teaching capacity, and rightfully so. If the most talented and driven scholars choose to move outside the academia, then the universities will no longer fulfill their goal to be at the forefront of the production of new knowledge. Besides the loss of prestige and regress in scientific results, universities would then be at risk of losing important financial support both from companies and donors.

In order to increase the capacity to retain scholars with a record of excellence in academia, and in particular those that have benefited from the support of the universities during their Ph.D., universities need to develop special programs aimed at junior scholars. Lund University (LU), the place where I work, is one of the schools where such a program has been developed.

Under the name luPOD (abbreviation for Lund University Post-Doctoral course), the university designed a one year program destined to increase the marketable skills of the junior scholars working at LU. (It is interesting that luPOD is born out of another, earlier, initiative targeting the group of junior women scholars. Since then LU decided that not only women but all researchers at the beginning of their careers are in need of support and expanded the program to include both genders).

  • Mentorship
  • Some of the strategies used during luPOD are familiar matter to University of Venus readers . One of them is mentorship (discussed also here), where junior and senior scholars are paired with the help of a database constructed on the basis of recommendations and of previous experience. One can choose a mentor from one’s own discipline if one judges that it is the academic research that needs more support. Or one could choose a mentor from the administrative side of university life, or from one with high pedagogical skills or another with a good record of attracting external funding. No matter what, the mentors are there to help, guide, and inspire the more junior scholars.
  • Networking
  • Another strategy is to create networks both horizontally and vertically (and here the University of Venus Networking Challenge comes easily to mind as a similar attempt). Vertically, through the mentorship initiative, younger and more senior higher education professionals get in touch and learn to know each other. The more experienced scholars roll the ball further by inviting their mentees to relevant reunions and conferences where they are likely to meet like-minded people. Horizontally, each luPOD group has one year of joint work and meetings at least once a month (including two overnight stays) to build connections with each other. In the future, when these young scholars will step up in the hierarchy, they will have each other’s support and perhaps would continue to “give forward”.
  • Improved skills
  • Thirdly, the luPOD participants will be improving their pedagogical skills through special workshops. They will also benefit from career advice on how to present themselves and their research in a more convincing fashion, how to write better grant applications, and how to start their own businesses. Not everyone will be interested in all of the things above, but the hope is that everyone will find at least something of relevance to their own career.

Since I myself have started luPOD this year (the first get-to-know-each-other meeting took place in May) I will have the chance to report from the field, so to speak, about the transposition of these goals into practice. For now, the least that can be said is that I am very glad this initiative exists and that, on paper, it bids well for the future.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

A Hall of Femmes for Women in Academia

In Anamaria's Posts on 2012/05/30 at 00:19

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, writing from Lund, Sweden. 

Not long ago, the Swedish design duo Hjärta Smärta, composed of Samira Bouabana and Angela Tillman Sperandio, initiated a project aimed at recognizing the talent of women designers. They noticed that most of the books in their field showcased the work and the biographies of male creators, and wanted to fill the gap by including all those major female figures in the world of design. They admired their older counterparts’ artistic muse but were looking for also for some inspiration in the biographies of these highly successful but less known female personalities in the world of design.

The result is now known as the Hall of Femme, a nice pun on the Hall of Fame that does not include as many women as the team at Hjärta Smärta thought it should. Besides having a blog (in Swedish) which gathers their design-related posts from around the web, Bouabana and Tillman Sperandio authored also several books based on extensive interviews with the grand dames of design such as Lillian Bassman or Carin Goldberg.

After I had read about the Hall of Femmes I thought immediately that this is exactly what I would love to do: collect the life stories of the big names among female academics. It is true that we here at UVenus are representing the younger, Gen X, women, but, as the saying goes, we stand on the shoulders of giants. The life narratives of these first ladies of academia are documents about the history of the process of bringing in and recognizing women’s merits as researchers and professors at the university level. They are also potential models and terms of comparison for our own lives and struggles today. After a long and successful career, perhaps one looks with different eyes at one’s working life, and at one’s priorities. This could be an inspiration for us younger women in the academia, and perhaps also a comfort, to know that these women we admire have shared our own passions and our own occasional desolation.

I always wondered about such things as:

How did the women professors in any given country active in the 1960s or 70s cope with the patriarchal biases so much more present and visible at that time?

How did they solve the “life puzzle”, combining academia with families?

Did they feel recognized for their work and how (and when) did that recognition come?

As for my imaginary interlocutors, there are many, some dead, some still with us. I would have loved to talk to Marie Curie or Rachel Carson, for example, but that chance is gone… I would love to talk to Nobel Prize winners such as Elinor Ostrom (Economics), Carol W. Greider and Elizabeth Blackburn (Medicine). Or with some of the women authors in my field of study, social sciences, professors like Katherine Verdery,Wend yBracewell, or Helen Wallace. Of course, I would also like to go outside the English-speaking world and get the opinions of women, both young and old, such as Leyla Neyzi, Daniela Koleva, or Barbara Törnquist-Plewa.

We all need role models, and have such people as references in our everyday professional and private lives. Let us recognize their impact and acknowledge their contribution.

Who would you like to include in the Hall of Femmes of Women in the Academia and why? Which questions would you like to ask these prominent female figures in the world of higher education and research?

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed. 


The Death of the Lecture

In Anamaria's Posts on 2012/04/27 at 04:50
 Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, writing from Lund, Sweden. 
Recently, I had a conversation around the lunch table with several of my colleagues. The discussion turned to the requirement to take pedagogical courses, now part of the criteria for getting an academic job at my university. Were these courses useful or just necessary? Do they teach something relevant for improving one’s teaching? As good scientists, we stopped discussing the courses and focused thereon on the definition of “teaching” or, more specifically, on what “good teaching” should stand for. Of the many things we discussed during that lunch, the idea of the outdated lecture stayed with me, I decided to dedicate this post to a critique of this method of teaching.

Lectures are a very common (I could safely generalize and say even the most common) method of teaching at the university level. This does not mean that there are no labs, seminars, discussion sessions, group projects etc. It only means that if we look at the academic schedule of most disciplines, the majority of the booked times are under the heading “lecture”. During these lectures, the teacher imparts information on a specific topic to a group of students. What  happens is known as “information transfer”: the teacher shares her knowledge with the students, who take notes and can ask questions whenever something is not clear. At the end of the session, the teacher and the students are in possession of the same amount and quality of information about the specific topic – the transfer of information has been completed.

But is the transfer of information mediated by a teacher the same thing as learning? Learning is about the long-lasting acquisition of information, it is about remembering the information and being able to retrieve it and apply it at the appropriate time in the appropriate circumstances. Lectures can ensure the short-term memorization of information, as teachers who give quizzes at the end of their presentations have certainly proven. However, it is highly questionable if lectures can deliver this kind of long-lasting knowledge. Others have demonstrated the need to complement lectures with other didactic exercises. This is where terms such as peer instruction, or (inter)active learning come from: from the need to make students engage with the information received from the teacher, to make it their own, and to apply it.

In this kind of learning, the teacher spends much less time talking to a quiet classroom (sometimes the lecture is entirely virtual, like in audio or video broadcasts that are available before the physical meeting in the classroom). Instead, the teacher’s task is to provide personalized and qualified feedback for the learning activities of the students. The students, armed with the lecture and the associated readings, discuss and respond to various hands-on exercises. The teacher assists the discussions, monitors them, and gives responses to the quality of the debates and of the results of the exercises.

Nothing of what I write here is revolutionary. Almost all of this has been common knowledge for many decades. Lectures are not the most effective way of learning. Instead more participatory forms of pedagogy give better results both in national tests and in professional life after studies. So why do we still have the lecture as the number one teaching tool?

I single out here two reasons: inertia and money. Academia is an environment well-known for its slowness in embracing change. The lecture has been around practically since the Middle Ages. It is the way to teach, and both students and teachers expect it. In order to change the teaching format from lecture-based to more hands-on student-focused learning, one needs to change the infrastructure of the university (everything, from the way to count worked hours to the classroom design). This change is met with resistance because of inertia but also because of the high material costs. And it is not just the costs of change that deter the dethroning of the lecture. One should count here also the higher amount of contact hours, since the student discussions/labs/seminars can only be carried out by few students at a time. The teacher would have to work more hours to attend these meetings and to give specific, customized feedback to every group, instead of delivering a finished product to many students at the same time.

Further readings:

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Why go for a Ph.D.? Advice for those in doubt

In Anamaria's Posts on 2012/03/31 at 21:37

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, writing from Lund, Sweden

It is very fashionable these days in the world of arts and entertainment to create prequels. As opposed to sequels, telling readers/viewers what happened next to their favorite characters or plots, prequels go back in time. I find myself following this trend and writing a prequel to my post on how to avoid Ph.Ddropout.

One of the comments to the above-mentioned post made me think that one of the best ways to minimize Ph.D. drop-out rates is to select the best candidates for the job. The next logical question is: Why follow a Ph.D.?

Why go for a Ph.D.? There are as many reasons as people, you may say, but perhaps these motivations can be systematized in some general categories. The disinterested reason most often given is that people go for a Ph.D. because of their thirst for knowledge. Simply put, Ph.D. students are those with high degree of internal motivation that stems from their inborn curiosity and love of intellectual pursuits. They are expected that after they obtain their degree they will metamorphose into scholars for whom also the temptation of researching new and exciting subjects is irresistible, or at least preferable to all other choices.

But is it so that one can satisfy this desire for deeper understanding only by enrolling in a Ph.D. program? Are there no other avenues for the interested mind than university-based research programs? Certainly we all know the answer: there are other opportunities to drive research projects outside the academia. Sometimes access to these opportunities is conditioned by having received a Ph.D. from a university, but I would not claim this to be the absolute rule. Think-tanks and research institutes do hire capable minds with or without the diploma.

There are other reasons for pursuing a Ph.D. though, let them be called more pragmatic. In this sense, the doctoral degree is not just a passport to a world of research and new knowledge. The degree is a valuable asset that increases one’s chances for obtaining higher paid, more satisfying jobs. It is seen as an investment, a certificate of one’s special abilities that gives advantages on the job market.

While it is true that Ph.D. holders do get higher salaries, the higher education market is not one of the most rewarding in terms of financial stability. There are few available jobs, there is a lot of tough competition and the salary of a professional is lower here than in the industry. So the Ph.D. diploma is valuable if its possessor is interested in the non-academic job market. However, how many of the Fortune 100 people hold a doctorate? Not many. On the contrary, there are numerous among these who are drop-outs (even before finishing a Bachelor). So if you want to be really financially prosperous, then Ph.D. degrees are not for you.

There are other pragmatic reasons that motivate students to continue their education to the Ph.D. level. Coming from the times when these diplomas were reserved for a minuscule segment of the population, the doctoral degree is a seen as a prestige marker, the recognition of one’s exceptional talents and the certificate of belonging to the intellectual elite. The non-material rewards that a Ph.D. is supposed to bring, at least theoretically, are connected to social standing; Ph.D.’s can be used as a vehicle for upwards social mobility, and for the fulfillment of personal and family ambitions.

The prestige power of the Ph.D. is however on the wane. With mass education, the number of doctorate holders increased exponentially, so that the elite membership and the high social status coupled with it weakened. Especially in connection with a decrease in salary size for university professionals, doctorate holders may be seen as exceptional but quirky: why choose to specializes narrowly, work so many hours, and for so little pay when one could get a more lucrative employment elsewhere?

Some people are driven to pursue a Ph.D. because of pragmatic reasons that are not of their own making. The Ph.D. is not the first-hand choice, but the one imposed by necessities. If the job market does not offer attractive alternatives, or if entry to the job market is prohibited because of immigration status, then pursuing the highest academic degree is the choice for students who under other circumstances would have opted for a position in the industry and not in the research field.

Why did you choose to pursue a Ph.D.? Or why did you decide against a Ph.D.?

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed. 

When You’ve Done Everything Wrong

In Guest Blogger on 2011/10/23 at 03:58

Maria Nilson, writing from Växjö, Sweden

Suddenly tenure is within my grasp. I am a scholar who has done everything wrong (according to the academic standards). I was born a woman (!), I choose to study literature (not a lot of career opportunities), I decided to focus on popular culture (the horror of it) and showed an interest in historical romances and chick lit (disaster) and then I aged (never a good thing). When I started my doctoral studies in Sweden in the 1990s I had a lot of confidence and a lot of fight in me. I had taken every course in gender studies and feminist theory that was available at that time. I was a member of several discussion groups with other women and I had a female professor whose seminars talked about literature from a gender perspective. The future seemed bright and I honestly thought that the academic world would change in a decade or so.

Sweden has had the advantage of a very clear legislation on gender equality since 1980, and has several programs to improve both the conditions for women at universities and to increase the number of female professors. One example is the “Tham Professors”, which was created in the 1990s and aimed at researchers that had a clear gender perspective in their work. They were given the opportunity to become professors and develop more opportunities for women and strengthen gender research at all levels. But it has taken a lot longer than we thought. Today there are more women at the universities than men at all levels – except the highest one. We still have only 20% female professors and that doesn’t seem to change.

I meet a lot of young Ph.D. students who don’t see any discrimination, who seem oblivious to the glass ceiling, and in a way, I envy them. Sooner or later they will run straight into the same structures that I have been struggling with for a long time now, and I don’t know if it is better to warn them or to just let them discover it for themselves.

Now, it’s not as bleak as it sounds. A lot has changed, and today I think it is easier to enter the university as a Ph.D. student. You can choose your own subject, no one can argue with you if you want to work with feminist theory and we have gotten rid of a lot of the blatant discrimination. But – and there is a but – we haven’t really changed the structure. There is still a lot of opposition and in one way I think it is harder today. When I first came to university as a graduate student, I met a lot of “open” opposition, but today it is more subtle, more hidden. On the surface everyone agrees that equal rights are a must, that gender perspectives are important and that we need more women professors. But underneath the surface? Well, I don’t know. There is still a lot of good old-fashioned sexism floating around and now it is more difficult to battle it.

So why do I want to stay at the University? Well, I love the students (yes, you heard me right: I love teaching!), and I enjoy doing research and getting books published. I feel that I can still be of some use and even if I am not a man, or particularly high brow in my research (working with paranormal romances for the moment) and as I get older, I actually think the university needs people like me and like you reading this, so don’t give up.

Senior Lecturer Maria Nilson has a Ph.D. in comparative literature and works at Linné University in Växjö, Sweden. Her main field of research is popular culture.

This post was also published at Inside Higher Ed.

Higher education as a business relation or as an individual right?

In Anamaria's Posts on 2010/05/12 at 09:00

There is some frustration involved in managing an international master’s program. Yes, frustration, and that is the least said. I wish I could have written the fulfilling or the rewarding or the exciting process of going through hundreds of student applications and ranking them and so on, but “frustrating” remains the most appropriate epithet. And this is not a complaint for having too much work on my hands: on the contrary, I really get a kick from peeking into the lives of such interesting people as our prospective students, so many of whom are really dynamic, enthusiastic, forward-looking types ready to get involved in the shaping of their own lives and of a better world (or at least a better Europe, since we are a program in European Studies).

The frustrating part comes from not being able to appropriately provide answers, solutions to these great students’ questions. Sweden is going through a revolution of its higher education. From next year on, tuition fees will be introduced for all non-EU students – this is the first time higher education is treated as a service for the rich and not as a human right. Already last year, the Swedish Migration Board toughened the criteria for obtaining a student visa. If admitted to a two-year program, a non-EU student must demonstrate they possess on their personal account (no sponsorship allowed) 146 000 Swedish crowns, which is about 15 000 euro. That is a lot of money to own as a 23-year old, wouldn’t you say? Migration rules and tuition fees combined make studying in Sweden practically impossible for regular people from outside the European Union.

More frustrating then to sit in this chair I am sitting, forced to explain to very qualified students that no, we cannot help them with any kind of scholarships, and no, there are no exceptions from the visa rules, and finally no, that Lund University has very limited housing and we cannot help them with finding apartments in the city. Lots of “no” and lots of limits to the capacities to change the system.

If students are going to invest so much money and effort to come here and be a part of our education, I feel under a very strong pressure to deliver excellent results that would make it all worth the trouble. And this is the problem when one looks at higher education in business terms, as a service that is bought by students. One’s pedagogical and academic work is being judged by criteria outside the academia – “return on investment” and “job with an international company” are not usually part of my world. On the contrary, if university studies are seen as a natural right for personal development and enrichment, the measure of success would be different: fulfillment, learning, inner satisfaction, capacity to select, process and criticize information, higher creativity. Sweden was the last haven of the perspective of the academia as a right. Now, like pretty much everywhere else, a university diploma is not a step towards intellectual development and learning, but a business purchase, something between a Louis Vuitton bag and 10 000 worth of shares at the London Stock Exchange.

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten

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Prestige in the profession

In Anamaria's Posts on 2010/04/14 at 09:00

Yesterday the Swedish government decided to introduce a legitimacy for teachers, some kind of permit for teaching certifying that the holder is actually qualified both pedagogically and scientifically to instruct students. One of the reasons behind this measure, saluted by both government and opposition, is to raise the social standing of the teaching job, which in later years has become populated with those who simply were too unqualified to find any other type of professional career.

This suggestion made me think about the prestige associated with the activity of teaching. Even if the Swedish government has its eyes on the lower education levels, I think the image of the teacher in general has suffered a slow decay in the past two decades or so. It appears that teachers, even those in the higher education, are perceived as performing a menial job, which they do because they simply could not fare better elsewhere. They lack something: academic qualifications, or ambition, or desire to earn money. They cannot possibly be doing this because they chose to, because they actually like it, even more, prefer it to alternative careers.

The common perception in the society is, in my view, that teachers, educators in general, have lost control over knowledge, and thus they are not seen as having any kind of influence or power. Are we obsolete as a profession? Everyone can learn on their own (see the abundance of Do-it-yourself books and videos), with the Wikipedias of the world as their materials. More seriously, the availability of almost unrestricted information (think Google Books and the immense virtual library now present at anyone’s fingertips) has undermined the extraordinary claim for knowledge that teachers or the intellectuals in general used to make before the digital era.

Is there any prestige left for teachers, for the intellectuals? Do we have any type of capital, call it social or cultural or whichever way you like? Do others perceive us as performing a useful action, contributing to the common good, having access to a higher order of understanding that can also be communicated, shared? For me, the answers to all these questions can easily be in the affirmative. Yes, we are important, indispensable I would like to argue, yes, education should be the object of “high politics” not some lower tier obscure area; and yes, we are providing a common good: not the transfer of knowledge but the development of individual self-critical assessment necessary in all democratic societies.

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten

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Gender (in)equality in higher education: Sweden, Europe

In Anamaria's Posts on 2010/03/02 at 09:00

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, writing from Lund, Sweden.

To portray the situation of women in academia today is not a task meant for success in the space of 500 words. I will nevertheless try to describe briefly the situation in Sweden and to use that particular case as a springboard for more general thoughts about how it looks elsewhere and how it would be desirable to look everywhere in the future.

In today’s Sweden 60% of those who begin university studies are women, and this is a trend that began in the 1970s. In terms of the distribution across the fields of knowledge, men form the majority in the natural sciences and the technical subjects, but even in these areas women are the majority of graduates. Overall, two-thirds of those who finish a program of education are female.

This women dominance ends however when we examine the higher levels of involvement with research and teaching at the university. More men than women are doctoral students, for example, and the difference reaches its apogee when we look at the fact that 82% of professors are men and 18% women, confirming the well-known trend of vertical segregation.

The Swedish picture is almost identical with the general European one. There are more female bachelor level students (55%) and graduates (59%) across the 27 member states of the European Union, but only 48% of those who begin their doctoral studies are women, like the 45% of those who actually obtain their Ph.D. Even more similar is the situation at the professor level: the Swedish average is identical with the European one: only 18% of those who work as grade A academic staff are women (She Figures 2009).

How can this discrepancy be explained? Why is it so that so many women get a bachelor degree and so few continue to advance in the higher academic echelons? In a report from 2008 the Delegation for Equality in Schooling finds that this is not the reflection of the free choice of individual men and women, but rather the consequence of long-lasting power distribution patterns. To this contribute the obscure recruitment criteria and processes, and the unwritten expectations that separate men from women. For example, it is supposed that women will take on more social and administrative responsibilities whereas men are given more room to focus on the research and creative aspects of their jobs.

The most typical pattern of discrimination is invisible and subtle. It is not the case that women are actively excluded but that they are not invited to participate in what it has traditionally been a man-dominated world: they are not chosen as key note speakers at conferences, or they are not part of the informal networks created originally by men. They are forgotten, they are not seen, they are ignored.

There are still some positive trends. The younger generation in Europe, our dear Generation X, benefits from a more equal treatment that the previous cohort. Females between 35 and 44 represent 23% of grade A academics, whereas 45 – to 54-years-old females account for 21% and those over 55 only 18%. This improvement over time is reflected in the results of the three consecutive reports from the EU: the proportion of female professors increased Female grade A professors increased from 15,20% in 2000 (in the space of EU-15, the Western European states) to 19% in 2009 (in the expanded EU-27, including East European states where there was a higher degree of equality). Moreover the number of female researchers is growing faster than that of men (+6.3% during 2006-2009 compared to +3.7% from 2002 to 2006).

The numbers are bleak even if they do show a slow improvement. Who is responsible for changing the situation? How can one work against this invisible but very insidious passive exclusion of women? In Sweden, and this is a relatively unique situation, it is the government that has been actively engaged with the issue of bridging the gap. The main reason is that all Swedish universities are state-owned. Yes, you heard it right, there are no private universities to speak of. This leaves most of the responsibility of promoting equality to the politicians, who have had gender equality on the agenda for decades. And of course, it does give results (ever so slowly), but as the comparison with the general European trend confirms, it is by no means better than other strategies, where governments cannot exert control over gender issues in higher education.

How do you have it in your countries? Does this picture correspond with yours? And if not the government, who is it that took up the issue of gender (in)equality?

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten

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Women and Science –

She Figures 2009 –

Dold könsdiskriminering på akademiska arenor – osynligt, synligt, subtilt (2005) –

Delegation for Equality in School –